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The top-down style of management – and communication – is coming to an end.

The ‘deal’ between employers and workers of a job for life in return for loyalty no longer exists in most places, as major organisations have scaled back on their side of the bargain.

The good news is ‘command and control’ is giving way to more inclusive styles of leadership and employees are being given a say not only over how a strategy is to be carried out, but what that strategy is going to be.

That’s the view of John Smythe (pictured), one of three speakers lined up for this year’s IoIC 'Insight Seminar' – titled Internal Communication Crossing Cultures - in London on Thursday November 13.

It’s also the theory behind John’s book, The Velvet Revolution At Work, and he’s linked the working landscape with the political change that has taken place in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and more recently across the Arab world.

Although he says it will take time, he’s convinced major change is underway – as he told InsideOut (IoIC’s member magazine) last year.

“The idea of employee engagement has been around a long time in one form or another and came to nothing,” admits John. “But this time the fundamental idea of more inclusiveness at work might succeed for reasons that weren’t present before.”

The biggest reason is the end of the ‘loyalty for security’ contract that built up after World War II when employees would stick in a job for life in return for long-term employment, a decent pension and other benefits. The closure or hacking back of pension schemes and widespread redundancies saw to that.

“The prison that people were kept in, in return for security and benefits, has more or less gone,” says John. “There’s less incentive to be loyal.

“Also, the Velvet Revolution and, to an extent, the Arab Spring marked a moment when people aren’t willing to live in a state of authoritarian control, so why should they put up with the same state of affairs in the place where they work?

“So many employers represent authoritarian states rather than social democracies.”

John adds to this the liberating effect of the rise of digital communication, saying: “Knowledge is far less easy to prohibit or keep secret”, and says these are the reasons employee engagement might stick this time.

John, who previously wrote CEO: Chief Engagement Officer, also uses his latest book to define employee engagement as much more than just enjoying your work.

“To be engaged, people must be invited to influence the goal – the what – rather than just its realisation – the how,” he explains.

“Organisations should take note as they often dictate goals – the what – and invite some involvement in delivery – the how - and assume that they have engaged people.

“They have not engaged people unless they have involved them in both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.”

As for how far employees can be involved in deciding an organisation’s strategy, John says that will vary.

“Every organisation needs to work out what they can’t negotiate over,” he says. “For instance, take safety in the oil and gas industry, there are some areas that have to be prescribed and areas where there has to be alignment.

“Every sector and every industry needs to work out where the lines in the sand are operationally. Maybe in the medical area there will be more than in, say, retail. All of them will have some areas that are red lines.

“But they should be thinking ‘Where is the area of discretion if people are invited to contribute?’ ‘Where can our gains be?’

“In a large supermarket, for example, the big consideration will probably be the visitor experience in store. What makes for that? Well, partly the products, partly the merchandising, but the real variable is what are the people like?

“We all now that in some stores you get that intimate, friendly vibe and in others it’s just stuff on shelves. In the good ones those people have obviously been licensed to create a fantastic visitor experience.”

He cites the example of local products. “As stores become more and more localised the only people who can make a difference are the staff because they’re local,” says John. “If they want to sell local cheese, how would the company know if the employees don’t tell them – they’re local. Only the staff will know that because they live there.

“There’s always a chance to get staff involved in decisions that affect the business. In every sector and every company there will be opportunities.”

John says engagement will work because it works for both parties.

“There’s a selfish gene for leaders,” he explains. “They should recognise it’s not just something nice to do, it’s an approach which will give them team effort. Things will happen faster because the employees own it and they thought it up, they’ll make it happen.

“The selfish gene for employees is well this is fun, it’s new, I’ve been asked for my opinions to make a difference, I feel proud of what we’ve done, I’ve made a difference.

“Employees want freedom to be themselves. They don’t want to feel the organisation is trying to coerce them.”

True engagement has been a long time coming but John says he’s confident it will happen.

“I celebrate the organisations that are taking risks and getting results. A lot of those that don’t just don’t know there’s an alternative.

“It’s not going to happen next month or next year, it may take 10 or 15 years but it will happen.”

The vital role of comms

Engaged employees being involved in setting goals is a particularly important point for internal communicators to take on board, according to John.

He explains: “Internal communication grew up in the latter decades of the last century and in the first instance its job was to repackage external marketing to inform people internally about the goals and mission of the business.

“Its first outing is in the persuasive arts, or you might even say even coercive arts, and the predominant DNA of communication is still the radio station of the corporation. It’s about persuading more people more quickly.”

He admits that there’s always a need for some top-down communication because there are some areas in all organisations that need to be set in stone, like health and safety.

But, John says: “There’s also now a need for communicators to set the stage for how the engagement is going to work. We have the back story - that’s set - and you have the drama on the stage in which people are being invited to take part.

“Communicators are uniquely well-placed to communicate the vision for engagement – what you can expect, how it’s going to work, here’s what’s going to happen when you do contribute.”

However, as well as communicating how engagement will work, communicators may need to challenge leaders.

“When they are confronted with leadership teams that really just want to say ‘Here’s the decision’, a good communicator ought to bring an element of challenge - ask ‘Have you really thought about how this should be communicated from the top down?’ ‘Could other people contribute?’

“There’s a strong adversarial challenge role there, especially for leadership teams which just want to make a decision and get it done.”

Fighting the myths

The Velvet Revolution at Work tackles a series of 13 myths about why employee engagement won’t work, from ‘there’s no time’ to ‘most people aren’t interested in being engaged’.

For instance, many will say that in the current recession there’s been no need to have engagement because there’s an endless supply of employees.

“Inevitably lots of big corporations think like that and people in turn have accepted it,” says John. “But those thinking longer term know it is the right thing to do. The moment things start to turn, as they appear to be doing, the bastards will be punished for what they’ve done.

“A huge amount of people will be thinking ‘Right, I’m off now because I can get away’.

“On the positive side, lots of companies have said this is a way to keep us ahead and keep us out of trouble during a difficult time. Lots of people are smart enough to say if they engage their people and include the in decision-making, they will do a better job.”

He compares organisations that ignore engagement with the isolationist regime in North Korea.

“If you have organisations which are highly impervious to the outside world - the corporate equivalent of North Korea - it might work,” he says. “You might think because you get a meal a day and a schoolplace for your kids that it’s amazing – but only because you don’t know what’s going on in South Korea.

“And in employment circles it’s only a matter of time before people get a glimpse of somewhere else.”

For more details of the Insight Seminar – Internal Communication Crossing Cultures – in London on Thursday November 13, including how to book, click here
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